After a day of beautiful weather, we pay the price today:
it pours with rain almost the entire day. Having visited (or not) the palaces on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, today we turn our attention to sights not yet seen in the city itself. Our starting point is the Fortress of Peter and Paul, strategically set on an island with a commanding position over the Neva. Inside the fortress is the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, whose spire is visible from all over St. Petersburg, and which serves as the necropolis for the Russian imperial family. We have gotten used to transit in the city – first a bus, then a metro, then another bus or a walk. When we leave the hotel, it seems the rain has stopped, for the sun is peeking out. The rain holds off until we have gone down into the metro, but as we exit, it is simply pouring.
Pouring Rain, Two Minutes, Straight Down
Greg: The central line of the metro system of St. Petersburg is truly beautiful and well worth a visit if not a ride. Constructed in the mid-1950s, most stations are tunneled deep under the city and are a glorious tribute to the former Soviet Union. I time our steep descent on the escalator today at over two minutes, straight down and moving fast. Each station is themed and trimmed out in marble with exquisite light fixtures and other finishes. There is no graffiti evident and you truly feel like you are stepping back in time to a different era and way of thinking, to the Soviet Union of our childhood: Cold, threatening and dominant, powerful and icon-driven. But still so beautiful.
Umbrellas Alone Just Won’t Do
We walk from the metro to the fortress, glad of our umbrellas, but wishing we had worn our rain jackets as well. Oh well – there are sights to be seen! First, we visit the Cathedral – almost the 1st thing built in the fortress, its steeple so high to show the Swedes they had lost this territory for good. Much tinier than anticipated, given its prominence on the skyline, we enter. Truly an Orthodox church, with its wall of icons shielding the inner sanctum from our view, and of course no pews (people stand and prostrate themselves during Russian Orthodox services, but do not sit), what immediately grabs your attention are the simple marble tombs, may 1 metre high by 1.5 metres wide by 2 metres long, which house the remains of every tsar and tsarina from Peter the Great on. Marked only by a simple cross, they are unexpectedly sober, given the opulence of everything else in St. Petersburg. When we look at the tomb of Paul I, whose home Pavlovsk we visited yesterday, Nico tells us that he wasn’t originally allowed to be buried here, because he was murdered so soon after ascending the throne that he was never crowned, and burial in the Cathedral of Peter and Paul was deemed inappropriate – until somebody changed their mind, and he was moved from the Nevsky Monastery, where the immediate families of the tsars are buried.
Nicholas and Alexandra
There is a huge crowd gathered in one corner of the room, and we move over to see what they are gawking at – which turns out to be, in a room at the back of the cathedral, the burial place of Nicholas II and Alexandra, together with their children. Although their bones were discovered in 1991, it was only through DNA testing conducted in 1998 that the remains were conclusively identified as theirs and that they were buried here (and in this way the children are the exception to the rule that only tsars and tsarinas are buried in the Cathedral). From the Cathedral, we visit the prison – where those charged or convicted of treason were held and executed. Not a place that we would want to spend much time! From here we walk the ramparts of the walls of the fortress, and despite the driving rain, the view over the Neva River to the Hermitage is spectacular.
The Shot Heard Round the World
Because of the rain we change our plans – which had been to visit the Aurora, the ship that fired the shot that started the October Revolution – and head instead for the Alexander Nevskiy Monastery. Nevskiy is honoured as a hero in Russia – in the 12th century he fought the Swedes for control of the Neva delta, and won, keeping the Swedes away for over 400 years. The Neva and the Nevskiy Prospekt are both named in his honour. The Monastery is one of the most important in the Russian Orthodox Church and was even allowed by the Soviets to continue as a monastery despite 70+ years of official atheism. From the Nevskiy Monastery, we go to the Trinity Cathedral, yet another beautiful church, white Georgian façade with Doric columns, almost like the Royal Crescent in Bath or the Nash Terraces in London, with 4 domes painted royal blue. Allowed to decay by the Soviets, the church is undergoing a major reconstruction at the moment. This is a church that is far different from the more normal baroque of St. Petersburg. Interestingly, one of the things that is being rebuilt is a monument that sat in front of the church for many years, manufactured from Turkish guns and cannons captured during one of the Russian-Turkish wars. This monument was melted down 75 or 80 years ago, as were the lamp standards that were made of 3 cannons welded together, but is being re-fabricated which explains the cannons lying on the grass outside the church. We take the Metro back to the Nevskiy Prospekt – we still haven’t walked it, and walk it we must. We come out at the half-way point, the Moscow Station, and walk toward the Palace Square. Busy despite the rain, it is an amazing promenade, hard to believe that it was laid out almost 300 years ago.
Thank You, Nico
As we walk along, the rain finally stops. We walk further, stopping in a few stores, buying nothing. We find a restaurant for dinner, and then it is time to say goodbye to Nico, for we leave St. Petersburg tomorrow. I am very sad to say goodbye – Nico has been a wonderful guide, getting us around safely, explaining nuances that are not apparent to us, and he has become our friend. Thank you, Nico! We have enjoyed spending time with you!